A Spool of Blue Thread: Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel, and counting…

Cover imageWhen I think of Baltimore two things come to mind: Anne Tyler and The Wire, polar opposites in terms of subject matter but both supreme exemplars of their particular form of entertainment. The Wire tackles the gritty problems dogging Baltimore city – drugs, racial inequality, corruption – while Tyler specialises in nuanced portraits of family life on the other side of the tracks. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that. She’s won a Pulitzer and been lauded to the skies by the likes of Sebastian Faulks, Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle. I’ve chosen an all-male list deliberately after being told by H that he’s never read a Tyler mainly because he didn’t feel he was her audience. We’ll soon put that right.

A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of the Whitshanks told through the history of their house lovingly built back in the 1930s by Red’s father for whom it was the epitome of perfection. Now in their seventies, both Red and Abby are showing signs of ageing and Abby’s ‘absences’ – short periods when her ‘brain jumps the track’ – have become a concern. What to do? Three of their children live close by while Denny, the black sheep, lives who knows where. Stem and his wife decide to move in; then Denny turns up determined to play his part, resentful of Stem as ever. Amanda and Jeannie look on, dropping in now and again, discussing their parents over the phone and learning bits and pieces about the family they thought they knew inside out. Abby and Red, deluged with more help than they need, try their best to accommodate their children and adjust to their new status, not quite ready to hand on the baton.

This post could so easily degenerate into a paean of praise or even a gush but it’s hard to fault Tyler’s wonderfully perceptive dissection of family life with its exploration of that difficult and unsettling role reversal which takes place when parents are no longer in the driving seat. As ever she’s a master of ‘show not tell’, slipping in details of the Whitshank history, quietly fleshing out her characters, recounting affectionate stories as if she’s having a conversation with you about a family dear to her – then dropping the occasional bombshell so that all the cards are thrown up into the air. It’s familiar territory for fans like me but none the less satisfying for that. Her writing reminds me of a particular sort of English cottage garden, awash with summer colour: it all looks thrown together with the greatest of ease yet you know it’s an effect only achieved with supreme skill and attention to detail. Her canvas isn’t broad but her incisive intelligence, her sharp observation and her gentle yet sometimes barbed humour ensures that her fiction remains entertaining, vibrant and relevant. This is her twentieth novel and I hope it will be far from her last.

20 thoughts on “A Spool of Blue Thread: Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel, and counting…”

  1. I read a recent interview with her that described her and her 70-something lady friends getting together in their native Baltimore to watch The Wire! I loved that incongruous image.

    1. Oh, that’s a wonderful image, Rebecca. Thanks so much for that! It’s hard to marry up those two versions of Baltimore as I gather it’s not that much bigger than Bristol.

      1. I grew up just 30 miles from Baltimore in suburban Maryland, but my hometown was a whole different world to what you see on The Wire. I get that idea from Anne Tyler’s books, too, that she inhabits a genteel area but just a few blocks away you might have the infamous drug corners. I’ve only read her two most recent novels, so I must go back to some of the classics.

        1. Glad to hear that! Life on the corner looks pretty horrendous. I’ve been re-watching The Wire this winter so was reading Blue Thread alongside it so to speak which is why the two were both in my mind. How has it been received in the area?

          I hope you read more Anne Tyler, btw, lovely long back list ahead of you.

          1. Strangely enough, I think The Wire has proved more popular in the UK than in the US. Apparently Baltimore’s mayor did not appreciate the portrayal of his city. I loved this interview with Tyler — you’ve probably seen it already: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/15/anne-tyler-interview-i-am-not-a-spiritual-person-spool-of-blue-thread. She mentions The Wire, and also reveals that she wrote this latest book backwards — not knowing if she’d add more family generations before publication.

          2. I did see the interview, thanks, Rebecca. Her reference to The Wire made me smile and the bit about writing the novel backwards was fascinating. I think you’re right about The Wire’s popularity in the UK. I remember BBC2 cramming it all into a few weeks which must have made viewers go out and buy the boxed set. Impossible to take it all in otherwise, particularly as you have to get your ear in, so to speak.

  2. Despite being aware of her work and it being highly recommended, I’ve never got round to reading one of her books. This is the 3rd review of A Spool of Blue Thread that I’ve read and the consistent praise has made me determined to read it and I’ve no doubt I’ll want to read more of her books.

    1. I hope you do, Helen. All that praise is richly deserved, and you’ll have a fabulous back list to draw on, too.

  3. I’ve read one or two less than positive comments about A Spool of Blue Thread, so glad to see you don’t agree. Also amazed that it’s her twentieth novel – I love Anne Tyler but must have only read about half of these, now I’m excited there’s more than I thought still to be explored!

    1. I was fairly stunned when I saw it on the press release, Claire, not least because I had to come to terms with how long that meant I’d been reading her! I’ve steered clear of other reviews until I wrote my own – I must have a dekko and see what the criticisms are.

  4. I am ashamed at how few books of Tyler’s I have read because with one exception I have really enjoyed those that have crossed my path. I have this on order from the library and then I really must go back and mine the back catalogue.

  5. I am a huge fan of Anne Tyler, though I do think there are two eras in her work, her earlier stuff being notably good but not as wonderful as her later (Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant as the start of the fabulous). However, I am sorry to say I did see a news item which suggested this would be her last novel. I really hope that isn’t true. I don’t have a copy of it yet but I will most certainly get one, and love it I don’t doubt.

    1. I suppose I’m not entirely surprised to hear that this might be the last Tyler, although we can but hope. I think you’re right about the difference between the earlier and later books. It would be interesting to start at the beginning and read back through, probably already the basis of someone’s PhD somewhere.

  6. I have read a lot of Anne Tyler though not all. This sounds great it reminds me of several of the novels of hers that I particularly enjoyed. Sometimes the familiar is what we crave 🙂

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  8. I’m coming rather late to the party, but just to say that my favourite Tyler is Breathing Lessons. Brilliant portrayal of marriage with all its roller-coaster emotions. Haven’t read her books for a while, though, and haven’t read Spool; this review prompts me towards it.

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